Close encounter with the Farne Islands tern colony
PUBLISHED: 08:31 01 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:29 20 February 2013
The Arctic tern breeding colony on Inner Farne offers close encounters with a remarkable creature – but take a hat
The Vikings had the last laugh. They werent real Vikings of course, just a couple of jokers wearing silly plastic helmets, complete with horns.
Chugging out to the Farnes on Billy Shiels Glad Tidings it had been us that laughed at them. The problem was it had been a year since our last trip across and our memory of that special Inner Farne welcome had faded somewhat.
Actually its two welcomes you receive as you land on Inner Farne - one from the National Trust warden who collects your landing fee and a rather less friendly greeting from the Arctic terns that nest alongside the footpath leading up from the stone jetty. As the first day-trippers disembarked from our boat and ventured up the path, terns took to the air in screaming protest, hovering over the heads of the intruders and swooping in to strike unprotected pates with their dagger-like blood-red bills.
The Vikings, safe under their hard hats, thought it was hilarious. Not so the unfortunate balding gentleman who took a particularly well-aimed blow to the crown, drawing a surprising amount of blood. Few birds can surpass the elegance of an Arctic tern, but equally few can match its vehemence in defending its eggs and young.
This is wildlife watching at the sharp end, an adrenaline-fuelled encounter with one of our most remarkable summer visitors.
For these deceptively delicate-looking birds, barely fifteen inches from bill to tail, and weighing it at a mere four ounces, have flown all the way from the Antarctic, leaving behind the harsh southern hemisphere winter to make an epic migration of 10,000 miles or more to their breeding grounds on our shores.
The terns begin to arrive in the
Farnes in May, reuniting with their lifelong mates to breed, lay their eggs and raise their young. Although most pair for life, they dont always stay together all year. Getting to know one another after time apart involves an elaborate courtship display, with the female bird chasing the male high in
the air, then descending slowly.
This is followed by fish flights, when the male offers fish to the female, and a lot of strutting around on the ground, with tail raised and wings held low. A bit more flying round in circles, and eventually the pair will settle on a nest site and mate.
Their nest is little more than a depression scratched in the ground, perhaps with a few scraps of vegetation, but the mottled eggs are well camouflaged, and walking around Inner Farne early in the breeding season you need to watch carefully where you tread, at the same time as watching out for aerial attacks.
Nesting on islands reduces the danger of egg predation by animals such as foxes, cats, weasels and mink, but aerial scavengers such as herring gulls are still a threat, which probably explains why so many of the terns nest right next to the footpath - though this doesnt make the protective parents any less intolerant of human trespassers.
By early July all the eggs have hatched and its the tiny balls of fluff that you have to avoid treading on. What is perhaps most remarkable about these global wanderers is that in only a few short weeks from now these chicks will be joining their parents on the long flight south.
One chick ringed in the Farnes was found, only three months after it fledged, in Melbourne, more than 14,000 miles away, having flown south and been caught in South Atlantic westerlies.
Its an astonishing journey, but some would say our Farne Islands Arctic terns are lazy by comparison to some of their cousins. One recent study tracked eleven Arctic terns that bred further north in Greenland and Iceland, and found their average annual round trip was more than 43,000 miles, with the longest covering 51,000 miles.
These distances are even longer than was previously thought, probably because the birds dont fly as the crow flies but rather take meandering courses to take advantage of prevailing winds. Arctic terns are long-living birds, many surviving to more than thirty years of age, so its quite likely that some individuals clock up 1.5 million miles in their lifetime.
Every year around 2,500 Arctic terns return to the Farne Islands to breed, but whether the population remains at this healthy level is in some doubt.
In recent years British seabirds have suffered some catastrophic breeding seasons, and conservationists believe this is linked to the disappearance of sandeels, a key prey species, from many UK waters. Breeding birds need a ready supply of food within flying distance of their nest site if they are to keep their hungry chicks fed, and Arctic terns are no different.
Further north, in the bigger Arctic tern colonies on the northern isles of Scotland, the birds have been hit hard in some recent years, and in 2008 very few chicks survived. In 2004, on the Shetland Islands, which usually have over 20,000 pairs of Arctic terns, not a single chick survived.
Whether disappearing fish stocks affect the Farne Island terns in the long term remains to be seen.
All bird populations suffer sporadic ups and downs due to natural events,
but the worry is that climate change could have a permanent impact on sandeel supplies and the seabirds that rely on them.
For now, though, the Arctic terns are still very definitely in residence, and offer one of the most thrilling summer wildlife experiences in the region. Just make sure to take a hat.